David Williams is a retired barrister who lives in Victoria. His book documents the lives of seven prominent lawyers who shaped the course of Canadian legal history from the era of John A. Macdonald to that of Brian Mulroney. They are linked by their all having refused an offer to become a judge. Mr. Williams covers his seven subjects, all dead white males, and most of them Liberals to boot, in a series of biographical essays averaging thirty to forty pages each and ostensibly written "for the general reader." His earliest portrait is of Eugene Lafleur (1856-1930) and his latest is that of Gordon Fripp Henderson (1912-1993).
For the "general reader", the history of Canadian law will be an extremely dull affair, concerned with matters like coastal shipping, the right to obtain beer by the glass, railway freight rate disputes, fractious Protestant churches, and sixty-year-old corruption scandals in the Manitoba provincial government.
It's little wonder, then, that a book about the legal minds who shepherded these issues through our courts, will be equally riveting-especially since many of these lawyers (as Mr. Williams never stops pointing out) were professional enough to argue both sides of some tiresome conflict.
Mr. Williams' problem in making his book interesting is partly explained by his lack of historical reference materials-in many cases these men were at best very minor historical figures. Eugene Lafleur's family members thought the lawyer's papers of so little historical value they threw them out after he died. While it would be presumptuous and uncharitable to suggest they may have been right, Mr. Williams's attempts to craft Lafleur's biography from his legal opinions and the public record do not succeed well, especially since the author insists on stressing what Lafleur didn't achieve, thereby utterly undermining his subject and leaving a reader wondering why on earth this lawyer deserves a biography at all-even a short one.
For example, we learn that in 1877 Lafleur "set his sights on a professorship in classics at the University of New Brunswick," but was turned down, so went into law. While a McGill professor, Lafleur was "a pioneer in conflict of laws", but he argued only two conflicts cases in court and we're told his text on the subject is now utterly forgotten. While he decided in Mexico's favour when asked to arbitrate the El Paso border dispute with the U.S. in 1911, the Americans completely ignored his ruling for more than fifty years. Mackenzie King offered Lafleur the job of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1924, but the lawyer turned it down. Mr. Williams reproduces their desultory correspondence.
This documentation of legal underachievement is only slightly more irritating than the pointless anecdotes that dot the book. Here's one from the portrait of the Ontario lawyer William N. Tilley (1868-1942):
"[Earl Smith, secretary of the Law Society of Upper Canada in 1934] realized he had not presented the minutes of the earlier meeting [of the society's benchers] to [the treasurer] Tilley for his approval and signature. He searched Tilley out, found him in the law library of Osgoode Hall, put the unsigned minutes before him and asked him to sign them. The treasurer scrutinized them, peered at Smith, looked again at the unsigned minutes, then asked Smith gruffly: `What changes have you made to these minutes?' Smith, discomfited, made no reply. Was Tilley joking in a rather heavy-handed fashion, or was he serious? No-one knows. Not even Smith, who often told the story. This was the enigma of Tilley: was he a genuine ogre or a seeming one?"
Is this a genuinely silly story or a seeming one? To give Mr. Williams his due, his portraits are more lively when he has better material than Earl Smith's recollections to work with. The sketch of the Nova Scotia lawyer Frank Manning Covert (1908-1987) is by far the best in the book, mostly because Covert was a scrupulous and lifelong diarist. Mr. Williams culls details from the diaries to show Covert's "bucolic boyhood" with colour and texture, and with those kinds of particulars, he is able to reveal the lawyer as the humane and thoroughly decent man he was.
(There is also a separate book on Covert: Corporate Navigator, by Harry Bruce, published by McClelland & Stewart.)
In the same way, Williams offers a well-drawn sketch of the B.C. legal lion John Wallace de Beque Farris (1878-1970), whom he shows as a consummate power broker in the provincial legal system, but never too important to spring his Chinese cook from the Vancouver jail after he (the cook) was arrested for gambling.
The "general reader" will not enjoy Just Lawyers. It's really a book for the specialist in twentieth-century Canadian jurisprudence or a book for lawyers who are old enough to be acquainted with the lives and careers of the men Mr. Williams writes about.
And since this book is certainly destined to find a place on law library bookshelves, perhaps Mr. Williams's editors could acquaint themselves with the conventions of Canadian legal citation and scholarly style before undertaking their next publishing project?
Michael Fitz-James is a Toronto writer who specializes in legal subjects.